If you ever dreamt of having a creative or unconventional career, it’s likely that someone eventually persuaded you to put aside those dreams of becoming a ballerina, a painter, an actor or a poet to pursue a more practical career. For decades, National YoungArts Foundation has used its yearly mentorship program to encourage aspiring young artists to ignore the doubts and pursue their dreams of success in the arts.
In this season’s “MouthWater” exhibit, works by YoungArts alumni were displayed throughout the gallery at the YoungArts campus near downtown Miami, at what was formerly known as the Bacardi Building.
Mark Fleuridor ‘McMechen 2’
Curator Robert Chambers had no specific theme in mind when choosing the works for the exhibit, but some pieces were grouped based on similar ideas. On the first floor, various works have themes related to social justice, although they differ in meaning and the medium used. In Rachel London’s pieces, she has painted over the real estate section of a newspaper to show socioeconomic disparities and segregation. Another piece in the ‘social justice wing’ is Get Your Life! Productions by Lee Heinemann. A TV mounted on the gallery wall broadcasts an episode of the series, which gives Baltimore youth a platform to express themselves. Upstairs, the ‘memory room’ features work that focuses on artists’ personal experiences and feelings.
“We’re focusing on bringing back alumni because we have such a wealth of people that we should be reaching out to,” says Luisa Munera, Artistic Programs Coordinator at YoungArts.
This season, YoungArts has shifted its mission to focus on fostering its relationship with alumni. In planning for the exhibit, Munera helped make a list of hundreds of alumni whose work could potentially be featured. She then began an extensive search process to find out which of them were still practicing art.
“It seems in the past that it was always alums reaching us. It wasn’t us doing it,” says Munera. “So now we’re really going through these lists and Googling people because these gems are coming out of these searches.”
That’s how they reconnected with alumni like Eric Rhein. When he graduated from the program in 1980, it was called National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. When YoungArts first reached out to him about submitting work for ‘MouthWater’, he was unaware that he was an alumnus of the program. Chambers selected Rhein’s work, which pays tribute to his loved ones who died from AIDS and represents his own experience with HIV. Rhein is the oldest alum in ‘MouthWater’ and his work joins the gallery walls with alumni up to 2016.
Eric Rhein ‘Fly Leaves – Gathering of Six’ courtesy of National YoungArts Foundation
Although the exhibit features graduates from the past thirty years, the collection at the gallery shows that you can be an incredible artist at 18 or 50. The opening on Sept. 27 brought decades of alumni to one space. Paintings by Leonardo Bacan, an alumnus from 2016, hang on the wall across from Rhein’s work. The two met for the first time at the opening.
“It was amazing for them to see each other,” says Munera. “And to see somebody that is very established in what they are doing and has a very focused way of thinking, and someone who’s getting there.”
Leonardo Bacan ‘White Wall, Serenity’ courtesy of National YoungArts Foundation
One issue that connects the work of many YoungArts alumni is the way they address social and political issues.
“A lot of the emerging artists are very tuned into what’s going on,” says Munera. “They’re really focusing on challenging these established norms through their practice.”
According to Munera, one artist whose thought-provoking work stands out in the gallery is Nadia Wolff. The 2016 alumnus uses embroidery to represent traditional values of gender and sexuality for women. In her pieces Linoleum Flowers and Meditations on Mary, Wolff adds her poetry about being queer to compare gender norms with her own gender identity.
“For her this whole embroidery, yes it looks beautiful, but she’s thought so much about it,” says Munera. “She’s thought about it like, sewing is tied to a woman so when I do it this way it’s changing the conversation.”
The same can be said for many other alumni in the exhibit. 2007 alumnus Cheryl Megan Smith’s work in ‘MouthWater’ shows her on screen, reciting a poem about gender politics with her face painted strategically with red, blue, and purple to symbolize different ways of thinking. Although Smith is a classically trained painter, she has found a way to bring several art forms together in one cohesive piece.
And that is part of the purpose of YoungArts. When these aspiring artists leave the program, they have learned new approaches from their colleagues who practice different crafts.
“A dancer and a musician work together and talk about what their process is and look at moments where they overlap or they intersect,” says Munera. “And something new and magical happens.”